Customs, Culture and Language Mishaps

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Reza exploring Lake Kananaskis

“A big difference for me is that at home we would shake hands every morning” notes Senad. “That is unusual where I work now, but there was one fellow, a Nigerian who experienced the same thing. The other fellows at work were not used to it and wondered why he and I would shake hands every morning. And it’s something I do with the people who work for me, I shake everyone’s hand each morning. Here, you only shake hands when you introduce yourself, not every morning. Most of them don’t even say hello to each other every morning! At the same time, where I come from you do not stand too close to people. Usually it was customary to remain at about arm’s length.”

Ruback says “In my country the ladies and the gents are often kept separate, especially in the smaller towns. People are more conservative and men wouldn’t shake hands with a lady. At home I would be more shy about talking to a lady than I am in Canada.”

A custom that Reza points out as different between Iran and Canada is “Back home it was okay to touch children, to kiss the children of strangers. Here, you cannot touch other peoples’ children. Also, at home it was customary for men to kiss other men on the cheek. Here, that is not considered normal.” Gary notes “In England when you used to do phys. ed. we referred to running shoes as ‘pumps’ so I had some strange looks when I said to friends at work in Canada “I’ll get me pumps”. Also, we referred to sweaters as ‘wooly jumpers’. Canadians just didn’t have a clue what we were referring to when we talked about getting a jumper.”

Shaun from South Africa created a buzz when he and Sally moved to a lake community in Calgary. Sally remembers “There was a funny thing. Our neighbours had a hot tub and when Shaun came over in his orange and black striped bumble bee Speedo they really teased him. We also had no clue that nobody would go to the lake in Speedos.” Though he laughs about the teasing, Shaun defends himself. “In South Africa we would wear our Speedos under our trunks and if you actually went into the water you took off the trunks and just wore the Speedo. It was awhile before I noticed that no one else was wearing Speedos here.”

Len had some encounters that are funny in retrospect, but were awkward at the time. “When we moved here I would say the wrong expressions. At home, getting a good screw was earning a lot of money. I met this man when we only lived here a few days and he said to me that his daughter worked for some lawyers and she had her own apartment and her own car. (Of course, this itself was different from England, no one left home until they got married.) So I said to him ‘Oh, those lawyers must be giving your daughter a good screw.’ And he was absolutely furious. I could see his face. And I thought what a strange man. And I found out afterwards what I had actually said to him. Also, there was this very nice woman who really helped me with something. So I said to her ‘You’re really homely.’ Which in England means you are a really nice girl, someone who you would take home to your mum. A compliment. Course, she got upset and she wouldn’t say anything. I realized afterwards I had called her ugly. I had no idea why she was so upset. I never saw her again and I felt badly because she had been so nice to me. She probably thought what a horrible man.”

All of the women who moved to Canada from the U.K. and Sally from South Africa were embarrassed when they referred to pencil erasers as rubbers. Sally says “The thing with immigrating is that you know you’ve said something wrong, but you don’t know what it is. You can tell from the face that you’ve done something wrong but you don’t know how to correct it. It’s a very vulnerable feeling.”

Of course, that is even more noticeable for the people who have grown up speaking another language. Bo says “It often happens that people laugh about something I have said and I have no clue why. I get them to explain it because I want to know what is so funny. Sometimes I grasp for words, and when I say something in a hurry it comes across harsher than what I meant. Sometimes you step on some toes. Written communication can be difficult too, so I add smiley faces to soften the message.”  Azi from Iran is a doctor and she finds the same thing. “I have talked to patients who have been offended because I told them that they should do something, and the way that I have said it, it seems to them like I am ordering them to do it, not that I am suggesting that they do it.” Her husband Reza says “We have to be very cautious with language because if something goes wrong we can offend someone without meaning to.” But there are times when the misunderstanding is not offensive. “A couple of the Canadian expressions that we have heard that we didn’t understand are ‘It’s the last straw’ or ‘Right off the bat’.”

“There’s mate and buddy” says Shaun. “To me, Gary’s my mate and Canadians look at you funny when you say that. The Australians, South Africans, the English all say mate, yet here, mate is your partner.”

Sue says “We would say we were going to do the gardening which meant cutting the grass, pulling weeds, but they would be looking around for a vegetable patch. Early days, friends invited us to go to the theatre and we said ‘Come back to ours for supper afterward’ meaning coffee and snacks. My friend said ‘Do you really want to cook supper at that time of night?’”

“I was raised not to swear, especially on my mother’s name” says Senad. “There was a man that I worked with and he called me a m.f. and I told him to never talk to me like that again. When the guys at work joke around with the swearing I say to them “Please guys do not go that far, I am not that kind of person.  Have you ever heard any well-educated guys using these words?”

Bo says that it was more acceptable in the Netherlands to swear, as long as it was in English! “My kids always laugh when we watch Dutch t.v. because they don’t bleep the English swear words. People in Europe will just casually throw around English swear words while speaking in Dutch because they don’t really mean anything to you the way they would to an English speaking person. You wouldn’t use the same words in Dutch. Seriously, you wouldn’t say that. I even used to casually say ‘shit’ when I lived there, if I dropped something for instance. I really had to change that when I came here, especially around kids.”

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